196. Minutes of National Security Council Meeting1

SUBJECT

  • Middle East and Southeast Asia

PRINCIPALS

  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger
  • Secretary of the Treasury William Simon
  • Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger
  • Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff General George S. Brown
  • Director of Central Intelligence William Colby

OTHER ATTENDEES

  • State:
  • Deputy Secretary of State Robert Ingersoll (only for Vietnam portion)
  • Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Joseph Sisco
  • Defense:
  • Deputy Secretary William Clements
  • WH:
  • Donald Rumsfeld
  • NSC:
  • Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft
  • Robert B. Oakley

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Southeast Asia.]

(At this point the discussion turned to Southeast Asia; Deputy Secretary Ingersoll joined the meeting.)

President: Bill, what is the situation on the ground in Vietnam?

[Page 707]

Colby: The Vietnamese Government has enough to control the area around Saigon and the Delta for this dry season but they are likely to be defeated in 1976. Thieu tried to extract his troops from the highlands in time but his ploy failed. He was so afraid of leaks to the Communists that he told no one in advance, not even his own commanders who were caught by surprise. There was really only one battle. Thieu was aware of the superior comparative strength of the North Vietnamese in the highlands so he wanted to pull out of Pleiku and Kontum. He wanted to fight at Ban Me Thuot, but he could not do it. Among other problems, his C–130s were sidelined. So the move to the coast became a rout instead of an orderly withdrawal. Then they were attacked in Quang Tri and Thieu was indecisive about Hue, first he was not going to fight and then he was and then he finally decided not to. This caused the commander of I Corps to become confused and angry. And now the airborne, their best troops, are being taken out of Danang to Nha Trang and Saigon. Thieu also wants to bring the Marine Division out of the perimeter around Danang. If so, Danang will surely fall. Originally, Thieu wanted to defend the enclaves, like General Gavin.

Kissinger: Colby’s estimate2 indicates that Thieu’s pullback was designed to put him into a position to cut his losses and stagger through until 1976. He decided to do this because he was not getting enough support from the U.S. It was due to a lack of spare parts and ammunition. The idea of pulling back was not bad but when the move began, the refugees clogged the road and the troops did not know how to move anyway. Thieu was trying to get ready. His estimate and ours was the same; an all-out attack next year would finish him unless he got more support. So he wanted to stagger through this year and hope for a change.

Clements: He did not tell us anything at all and did not tell his own commanders.

Kissinger: The move could only have been carried out by surprise.

Colby: The refugee figures have fluctuated up and down, with the highest point coming after the Tet offensive. Now we are back up to over one million refugees.

President: Can the Vietnamese be economically self-sufficient in the smaller area?

Colby: Yes, the Delta is the big rice area. This would have been the first year of economic self-sufficiency had it not been for the suddenly deteriorating situation. The refugees are placing a big burden on the government but it is interesting to note that they are all fleeing toward [Page 708]the government. That shows clearly how they really feel about the Communists.

Clements: But the army may leave some $200 million in arms and military equipment in Danang alone.

Colby: And there is some grumbling about Thieu in the army as well as in political circles. We may hear more about this.

President: You are not optimistic about Danang being held?

Colby: It should fall within two weeks even if the Marine Division stays instead of being pulled back to protect Saigon.

President: What about the evacuation of civilians?

Colby: There have been terrible mob scenes, both at the airport where they stormed loading aircraft and at the port where they jammed aboard ships. Some of the military have even shot their way on to the ships. A small number has been loaded but law and order has broken down completely and it is almost impossible.

Ingersoll: Reportedly 6,000 refugees got off on one ship this morning and another one is loading now.

President: What are these rumors about Ky coming back?

Kissinger: Ky is a boy scout, a flamboyant pop-off; he can not do the job.

Colby: Chief of Staff Vien and Prime Minister Khiem are possible candidates to replace Thieu.

Kissinger: Thieu has shown himself far and away the most capable of all the Vietnamese leaders I have known since 1965. No one else could do as well. He holds things together. He made a mistake in ordering the withdrawal from the highlands but he had no good choice. We were unable to give him the support he needed.

Colby: I agree with Henry. No one else is up to Thieu. Khiem would probably be the next best bet but he is some way from being up to Thieu.

General Brown: I agree with Colby’s estimate about Danang. It will be hard to hold 10 days. We have gotten all the Americans out. A second ship is loading. There are two airfields, the main one is Marble Mountain and a small one. There is an ARVN battalion protecting the small one from the mobs and some C–47 flights are getting off. The mobs took the main field and may take the second one.

Colby: There is little fighting in the Delta and around Saigon. Unless the North Vietnamese move their reserve divisions into the Delta from the North, Saigon and the Delta can probably be held militarily but the big problem will come when the stories about Danang start to circulate in Saigon.

Concerning Cambodia, Lon Nol is going to leave for Indonesia on April first. But there is no hope of talks with the Communists. They [Page 709]will see Lon Nol’s departure as weakness and will push harder. The new Communist proposal for a government would leave Sihanouk with no base at all, even if he was ostensibly the President.3

Kissinger: The war is now being conducted against Sihanouk. If it were a question of Lon Nol leaving and then our dealing with Sihanouk, it would be easy. But the Khmer Rouge want to erase all possible political base for Sihanouk and bring him back only as a front for themselves. The French told us at Martinique that Sihanouk wanted to negotiate but was unable due to the Khmer Rouge.4

Colby: The Cambodian airlift is suspended. The Communists could make the airfield unusable. The Government is losing ground east of the capital and also down along the river. The wet season starts in late May but the river will not come up until late July and by then it will probably be too late.

Schlesinger: We are getting the first reports that the Cambodian troops are beginning to lose their drive. They are worried about U.S. support and losing their commanders. With adequate resupply they would have lasted through the dry season. But the morale is no good. The debate in Congress has hurt them badly. It is likely to collapse in two weeks.

Kissinger: We have to make an evacuation decision. Ideally, from the political viewpoint, we should hold on until after your speech5 and after Congress makes a decision on our aid request. But if we wait it could collapse all at once before we can get our people out. But if we pull out, we will surely provoke a collapse. There are about 1100 people of all nationalities to be evacuated. We may need to decide next week.

General Brown: The situation has changed. The outlook is bleaker. We need to decide now to take them out or we could have a major problem. There is one brigade of Marines in the Pacific. We could use U.S. forces to take out the residents and try to beat the mob out with helicopters.

President: How long will it take to get them out?

General Brown: If we have to use helicopters downtown, it would take one day to get 1200 out. If we have the airfield, it would take less time. They can get there on their own. This is a very difficult operation.

Vice President: The Marines might have to shoot civilians and that would create a huge uproar.

General Brown: The mob will be hard to control. We might have to shoot refugees in front of the press.

[Page 710]

President: If you decide to use the airport, will you need to clear out the enemy?

General Brown: We may need air cover. If there is any firing on our people on the ground at the airport, we will attack. We will have aircraft in the air.

Clements: We can’t tell whether or not the Khmer Rouge will fight us.

Kissinger: We need a joint estimate about the unravelling in Cambodia.6 If they can’t hold, you need a chance to look at the situation. We need an estimate as to how long it can hold so we can decide on whether or not to order fixed wing aircraft in for evacuation.

Vice President: There is also the symbolism of Lon Nol leaving. This will have a bad effort on morale.

Kissinger: The Khmer Rouge will negotiate only unconditional surrender. They could get a negotiated settlement anytime but they refuse it. When Lon Nol leaves, it will demoralize the country. Long Boret will try to carry on but will fail.

Schlesinger: How long do we keep the Americans there after Lon Nol leaves?

Kissinger: We are pressing them to get out. Lon Nol wanted to stay but we had to press him to get out also, to calm the situation.

General Brown: We need a decision now on improving our intelligence capability. We can not wait for the Forty Committee, Mr. President. Will you authorize us to preposition intelligence collection aircraft now for us over North VietNam if we need it?

President: Yes, that is okay.

[Meeting ended at 1715.]

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, NSC Meetings File, Box 1. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the White House Cabinet Room. All brackets, except those describing omitted material, are in the original.
  2. Document 195.
  3. Details of the proposal were reported in the Washington Post on March 8, 1975.
  4. See Document 175.
  5. See Document 217.
  6. “The Security Situation in the Phnom Penh Area,” March 29, prepared by CIA, DIA, and INR, stated: “There does not appear to be an immediate danger of a general Cambodian Government (GKR) military collapse in the Phnom Penh area. The Khmer Communists (KC) probably will continue their strategy of steady but widespread ground attacks and shellings while waiting until supply shortages and war-weariness break the government’s ability or will to resist. We believe that government forces (FANK) will, for the most part, be able to contain the Communists along the capital’s outer defenses for the next week or so. Nonetheless, the Communists will continue rocket and artillery attacks against the city in general, and Pochentong Airfield, the US Mission, and American residences in particular.” (Central Intelligence Agency, NIC Files, Job 79–R01142A, Box 4, Folder 6, Memorandum, Security Situation in Phnom Penh)